Zagonyi’s Charge (Battle of Springfield)
Following two significant Union defeats in Missouri in less than six weeks (Wilson’s Creek on August 10 and Lexington on September 20, 1861), the Lincoln administration prodded Western Department commander Major General John Charles Fremont to take decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by the Missouri State Guard.
Led by Major General Sterling Price, the Missouri State Guard had enjoyed considerable success against Union forces. Price and his Missourians had managed to force Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s army to retreat from southwest Missouri after Wilson’s Creek, then, following a three-day siege, captured the 3,500-man Union garrison in the Missouri River town of Lexington.
Hoping to prevent yet another disaster for the Union cause in the state, General Fremont finally left St. Louis in late September in pursuit of the State Guard. He commanded an impressive force of 38,000 troops and 68 pieces of artillery. Price’s smaller army retreated to extreme southwest Missouri, although a detachment of State Guardsmen held Springfield.
By late October, as Fremont approached Springfield, he learned that no more than 500 State Guardsmen occupied the town, and that most of them were poorly armed. One of the many foreign-born officers accompanying Fremont’s army was Major Charles Zagonyi, commander of the general’s personal “Body Guard.” Zagonyi and his men had been ridiculed in St. Louis for their fine uniforms and their easy duty protecting the general, so Zagonyi, sensing an excellent opportunity to prove the reliability of his troops and demonstrate they were more than “kid glove soldiers,” asked Fremont for the chance to capture Springfield.
Fremont agreed, but ordered him to unite his three companies with three other cavalry companies, the two-company “Prairie Scouts” of Major Frank J. White and the “Irish Dragoons” led by Captain Patrick Naughton. Zagonyi and his men set out from camp about 9 p.m. on October 24 with 172 members of the Body Guard, and soon joined Major White and his 154 Prairie Scouts.
Just after sunrise, about eight miles north of Springfield, the Federals happened upon a State Guard foraging party, some of whom escaped to carry the alarm to town. Worse, Zagonyi soon learned that the State Guard force in Springfield did not number fewer than five hundred men, as he originally believed, but perhaps as many as 1,800 or 1,900. Despite this sobering intelligence, Zagonyi refused to retreat. Because the Body Guard had been “so shamefully abused,” he believed he had only two options—to go forward, or leave the country in disgrace.
Fortunately the major soon learned from a pro-Union citizen that the enemy was inexperienced and would likely run at the approach of the Body Guard, and also found out additional intelligence about Springfield, its landmarks, and which way the State Guardsmen were likely to flee. Zagonyi then decided to make a several-mile detour in order to cut off their most likely route of retreat. He left the Bolivar Road north of Springfield and moved to the western side of the town.
While Zagonyi maneuvered around Springfield, the Missouri State Guard soldiers in town prepared for battle. The State Guard camp was located on both sides of the Mount Vernon Road, near the county fairgrounds, about a mile and a quarter west of the Springfield public square. Although Zagonyi believed he faced nearly 2,000 of the enemy, it is far likely that only about 1,000 men were present, including approximately 700 cavalrymen and 280 infantrymen. Fortunately for Zagonyi’s men, most of the Missourians were fresh troops with little experience, mostly armed with shotguns, hunting rifles and revolvers, while some had no weapons at all.
Despite their inexperience, the State Guardsmen enjoyed the advantage of position. Riding toward town down the Mount Vernon Road, the Federals would first encounter a dense forest of oak, covered with underbrush impenetrable to men on horseback due to an abundance of wild grape vine. After passing through the woods, Zagonyi’s men would emerge into a clear space from which Springfield could be seen. From that point the ground descended rapidly for about 150 yards to Jordan Creek, then climbed again to the high ground where the town was situated. The State Guard officers chose the high, cleared ridge at the wood’s entrance on the north side of the road to make their main stand, although skirmishers were scattered throughout the woods on both sides of the road. A high “stake and rider” fence enclosed the road.
The main body of State Guardsmen was drawn up in a line of battle, facing southeast, conforming to the outline of the dense woods that protected their rear and both flanks and offered them refuge if forced to retreat. The Missouri cavalry was on the extreme left, their line of battle at right angles to the infantry. Despite the fact that the high ground commanded the Mount Vernon Road, the ground sloped gradually for a short distance, and then, in places, declined abruptly to Jordan Creek. If the Federals could charge down the road and reach the point where the creek and the road intersected, the natural bluff on the west bank of the creek allowed a certain amount of cover to allow them to form a line of battle.
Zagonyi and his column left the Bolivar Road about 2:30 and halted out of sight of the enemy on the Mount Vernon Road about 4:30 pm. He turned to his men for a dramatic speech before riding into action. The major let his men know the enemy was 1,900 strong, but promised them victory “if they will be what I thought and expected them to be.”
Zagonyi, with the honor of Fremont and his soldiers at stake, then gave his men a battle cry that would ironically seal the fate of the Body Guard. “Your watchword shall be, ‘Fremont and the Union!’” Drawing his saber, he gave the commands to set his column in motion. Later, Fremont’s enemies would use the major’s cry as evidence of the Body Guard’s primary loyalty to the general, not the Union cause. The Federals rode at a fast trot down the Mount Vernon Road, formed in a column of companies, one company directly behind the other. They soon encountered some mounted State Guard pickets, and “to the charge” was ordered.
The Federals initially trotted along with little trouble, but after half the Body Guard passed the timber and entered the cleared area the State Guard opened up on the head of the column with “a murderous fire of small arms” from both sides of the road. As the head of the column recoiled from the fierce fire, the situation became critical.
Captain James Foley, a quick-thinking Federal officer leading one of Zagonyi’s companies, decided to dismount, try to knock down the rail fence on the north side of the road, and lead his company to strike the State Guardsmen in the flank. He soon realized that his plan would not succeed, however, as the Missourians would merely retreat into the dense woods where pursuit would be all but impossible.
Major Zagonyi decided that their only chance to escape the enemy fire was to forge ahead down the road, so he led two companies at a quick trot down to the creek. There he dismounted his men, tore down the fence, and stopped in the shelter of the bluff north of the road. Zagonyi then turned and frantically waved his saber, hoping that Foley and the remainder of the force would join him. Foley’s men soon saw Zagonyi, abandoned their effort to outflank the Missourians, and rode through the gauntlet as well to join their comrades at the creek.
In the meantime, at the rear of the column, each company of Major White’s Prairie Scouts had become separated from the other and from Zagonyi. As Foley took down the fence and tried his flanking maneuver, Captain Charles Fairbanks of the Scouts came upon the struggling mass of men and horses in the road. At that moment, an unidentified Body Guard officer, perhaps Foley himself shouted to Fairbanks that the Missourians were running, and he should take his men down a nearby farm lane on his left and cut off their retreat. Fairbanks did as ordered, followed by Captain Miles Kehoe’s company. Fairbanks and Kehoe apparently made two or three attacks on detached parties of State Guardsmen in the rear of the main line.
The Irish Dragoons under Captain Naughton, the last company in line, intended to go down the lane as well, but when they galloped upon the scene they encountered a member of the Body Guard who pointed down the road and indicated that Zagonyi had gone in that direction. Naughton resolved to run the gauntlet just as the Body Guard had done, but when he reached the hole in the fence Foley had made, and saw no other Federals, he thought that Zagonyi had gone in that direction instead and decided to follow into the underbrush. The State Guard now had new targets, and poured their fire into the dragoons. Thirteen of them fell, including Naughton, who was shot in the arm and dismounted, and Lieutenant Patrick Connolly, who received two bullets in the lungs and one in the left shoulder. Without their officers and with number of their comrades down, the disorganized Irish Dragoons retreated. One sergeant soon tried to lead his men on another drive down the road, but they were again driven back by the fierce fire. Five of the dragoons did manage to fight their way through to join Zagonyi, but apparently the surviving members of the company joined Fairbanks and Kehoe for the remainder of the fight.
Under the creek bluff, Zagonyi prepared to pay the enemy back for the deadly charge down the road. Looking up the gentle, grassy slope, dotted with tree stumps, he prepared his men to charge again. As the enemy fire slackened, Zagonyi and his troopers moved in open order up the hill, the groups of men spreading out like a fan as they advanced. Their charge unnerved the State Guardsmen. The State Guard cavalry fled in all directions without waiting to receive the charge; many threw themselves from their horses and hid in the corn or the woods. The infantry briefly stood and fought, but soon their line wavered and broke, and most fled, although some continued to fire their weapons from behind trees, fences and stacks of corn. Captain Foley described the scene: “Wheeling right and left, the fight spread along the entire front, and became a series of hand-to-hand encounters which resulted in scenes it were wise not to describe. It was rebel muskets, shot-guns and rifles against Federal pistols and sabers.”
As the State Guardsmen retreated, Zagonyi and his men gave chase. Many Guardsmen headed for the protection of Springfield, but the Federals continued to hunt them through the streets. In less than a half hour, the formal pursuit was over, and Zagonyi collected his men and rode into town. Although Zagonyi had dispersed the State Guard and secured Springfield, he had lost a considerable number of men killed, wounded and unhorsed, night was coming on, and he faced the possibility of a State Guard counterattack. The major could either remain in town and fashion some sort of defense, or retreat back to the main army. Zagonyi chose the latter course. The Union troops rejoined Fremont, and early on the morning of October 27, rode back into town as Fremont and the rest of the Federal finally reached Springfield.
Casualties were heavy in Zagonyi’s ranks. His three companies suffered a total of 16 killed and 24 wounded. At least two enlisted men in the Irish Dragoons were wounded. Although casualty figures are unknown for the other two companies of White’s command, one participant estimated they lost 33 men. Missouri State Guard casualties are much harder to determine, but it is unlikely that they lost substantially more than the attacking Federals.
Unfortunately for Fremont, the general had made an enemy of President Lincoln. Frustrated by Fremont’s lack of energy in prosecuting the war in Missouri, and still smarting over Fremont’s earlier emancipation proclamation (in which he had freed the slaves of enemies of the Union in the state), Lincoln decided to relieve the general of his command. On the morning of November 2, Fremont received the order from Washington to turn over command of his army to Major General David Hunter. The following evening, November 3, as Fremont held a council of war to plan the upcoming fight, General Hunter dramatically arrived to take command. A short time later Fremont’s army was dispersed, and Sterling Price’s State Guard remained in southwest Missouri through the winter of 1861-62.
General Fremont and his Body Guard returned to St. Louis. There, because of their perceived loyalty to the general, Zagonyi and his men were mustered out of service. With this depressing end to the campaign, the victory-starved Federals lauded the actions of Zagonyi and the Body Guard, and images of the charge appeared in newspapers and popular news magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. Members of the Missouri State Guard understandably downplayed the event.
In reality, both the Federals and Missouri State Guardsmen were correct in their assessments of the charge. Zagonyi and his men had bravely attacked a superior enemy force and put them to flight. On the other hand, they had faced largely untrained, poorly armed recruits who nonetheless still managed to mount a stiff defense and caused the attackers significant losses.
Despite the efforts of Zagonyi and his men, Springfield remained in Southern hands until February 1862, when a new Union army under General Samuel Curtis captured the city for the final time.